Friday, 5 September 2014

The Dark Side of the Internet

There are dark corners of the world, which we normally don't see (or probably want to see) .... where there is the 'Matter', there is an 'Anti-matter', for every 'Black' there is a 'White', and for areas of light there is nearly always an opposite shadow. So it is on the Internet ...... where for the 'Web', there is the 'Dark Net' (not the dark internet which is innocently something else). It has recently been on the news a lot, but never really explained .... at least not to my satisfaction. So deep breath, here we go .....

The 'Dark Net' is really a series of server hosted interconnected networks, and given the generic name "dark nets". These networks are not hidden in themselves, and well known examples are 'Tor', 'I2P', and 'Freenet', but there are many others. These networks are specifically designed to conceal the identity and location of their users and by using a variety of technological tricks, the dark nets hide the give away identifiers, the Internet Protocol address (also known as an IP address), at the same time as they let people use the web.

These dark nets substitute alternative and faked the IP address traces, which are use to navigate the genuine net, and its these that they are leaving as calling ID's, obviously they are not the actual users and these networks have become a major problem for law enforcement and intelligence networks because they are free and easy to use by anyone.

The Dark Net Covers Many Secrets

Tor Basics

Tor was invented by a US Naval Research lab to help people use the web without being traced, Tor (which used to be the Onion Router system), aids anonymity in two ways:
  1. Firstly, it can be used to browse the world wide web anonymously. It does this by routing traffic through many separate encrypted layers to hide the data identifiers that prove useful in police investigations.
  2. Secondly, there are hidden sites on Tor that use the .onion domain suffix. These are effectively websites but, as they sit on Tor, are almost impervious to investigation.
Tor has been funded by, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google, Human Rights Watch and the US National Science Foundation. So this anonymity in itself is not necessarily a bad thing:

For example there are many reasons why a valid user of one of these networks may want to do this ....

  • Political activists trying to avoid censorship.
  • Reporters trying to contact, or compile reports in such places as Tibet.
  • Intelligence agencies, trying protect the lives of anti terrorist operatives for example in the middle east.

Or other innocent pastimes such, as to run elaborate worldwide games e.g. 'Cicada 3301' The Dark Net treasure trail

By contrast to the dark net, on normal web networks, everything connected to the web uses its own IP address, to ensure data reaches its destination. i.e. You get where you intended to when you click on a link, and all the information being moved about on-line have IP addresses, which are widely logged and the information packets (another IP - but just your request). This is the open net, where potentially any investigating a hacker attack or anything else, has a starting point in any investigation into who was looking at what, and where they are came from etc.

Those browsing these dark nets, especially on 'Tor', can see that many criminal sites are available by searching the networks, and both the criminal networks and their customers, trade on the anonymity it offers .... almost anything goes, from child abuse, snuff porn, selling guns, selling drugs, people trafficking, and of course personal ID/password sales ... its where your bank, credit card details, or email account passwords go for resale, after hackers have harvested them from your various regular companies in well publicised hacks.

Of course its also buyers beware on this unregulated web frontier - many, probably most of the illegal goods and services being offered, are actually scams, merely seeking to steal from the gullible - much like 419 email scams from Nigerian princes inheritances, or Spanish lotto wins (even though you never entered it) ... in other words they look for the stupid, the crooked and the greedy, who will part with money in order to break their own domestic laws, only to find that they have been scammed themselves.

But even so, its obvious that a large number of the sites are 'genuinely crooked', with many domains run via the dark nets, acting as sharing points for illegal material - be that pirated movies, or images of abuse. Any investigations into who is behind the services being offered on these networks, are often futile, as the big difference between Tor (and the others like it), and the normal web we mostly use, is that we will never find out who runs a site or forum ..... however that being said, recent law agency and intelligence communities have managed to crack a few of these networks.

The silk road (a dark net site) has seen a number of arrests, although it was soon back in business, but with the FBI amongst others, admitting that it now plants hidden code on the dark net, as a way of investigating the cyber criminals .... they have even flushed a few criminal networks off the Tor network e.g.  The Utopia drugs market was forced off Tor by Dutch police. So the forces of good are beginning to make some headway .... especially against paedophiles, with a recent strings of arrests, but they still have a long way to go.

I hope that explains what the dark net is .... its a certain fact that this Dark Side of the Internet will feature a lot in the news for some time to come.

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